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Trance

Picture this:

Your sight going two directions at once.  You can see, ahead of you, this page (or computer screen), and on the periphery, maybe your computer room or office.

But behind your eyes, you see a room.  It’s just as vivid as the room in front of you.  In it are several people— your “inside” people—talking, resting, or playing.

There might be a hall with doors that conceal rooms you never visit, though one of your inside people does—especially when she hears someone crying inside.  There may even be a back door, with a path into the woods, where the dangerous ones live.

Something like this experience is common for people with Dissociative Identity Disorder.*   It may not be so distinctly elaborated; there may be a vague network of tunnels, or an unseen world from which sounds of murmuring or crying emerge.

Therapy sessions with DID clients are usually not as exotic as TV shows and movies would have you believe.  We talk about jobs, relationships, procrastination, sleep issues, compulsive eating—the usual stuff.  But at some point in therapy, I’m liable to find myself working with the others, in their inside world.

It might be, for instance, that the “host” personality** feels anxious lately, but doesn’t know why.  As we ask the “others” for inside information about this, we may find that an alter personality deep in the inside world is distressed about something.  This alter doesn’t want to come into the body to talk, or make its voice heard directly to the host, but we might be able to get a conversation going by using the resources of the inside world.  I might ask an alter in the room-behind-the-eyes to relay a message, by calling through a door, or slipping a note under it and waiting for a reply.  After anywhere from twenty minutes to a few months of communicating in this way, the anxious alter may appear in the body and talk through some traumatic memory that drives the anxiety, until the host is able to recall it, own it, and work through it.  Or the alter may resolve the issue “inside,” and not be heard from again—though the host will somehow remember and feel less anxious.

At other times, the inside world spills into my office—perhaps in the form of a wounded child, who– though actually an adult body cowering on my floor– believes he is still trapped in a closet or a hole in the ground.  He speaks from the distant past, or from a virtual reality that gives form to his emotional world.  I will have to help him notice the present, and use words to put the past behind him.

At these times, when I am drawn into someone’s inside world, or have it break into mine, I change.  I notice my voice getting softer, slower, melodic.  My limbs assume a position suggesting complete relaxation, though if I am aware of my body at all I notice the rigidity in my upper back, out of the client’s view.

I begin to use words to reach someone who is in a place I can’t see; words to guide them out, or to bring them some relief where they are.

I feel at those times as though something like a rod of light were running through my body.  I’m in what seems like an improbable state combining taut alertness with deep calm.  It may last for awhile even after the session is over, but eventually I feel as though something lets me go.  The power withdraws, and I’m tired—and hungry.  I have had to learn not to use alcohol to pull myself out.

Before I read the chapter called “Trance” in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, the best representation I’d seen of this experience was on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  When the “scoobies” did spells, I saw the same cycle—their bodies drawn upright, their minds alert to things we can’t see, and at the end, the collapse of bodies released from whatever held them.

Now, having read Starhawk, I feel deeply understood; she clearly knows this experience from the inside.  Yet I’m struggling to negotiate the differences in how we think about what we do.  I’m not used to the language of “raith,” “astral body,” and “Deep Self,” and something in those terms tweaks my fear of what wiccans sometimes describe as “woo-woo” stuff (I assume this is the technical term for it).  But the sense of shared experience makes me want to at least try to see this her way for a moment, so I back up a chapter, to get on board the necessary constructs.

The raith, she writes, is “the elemental energy body,” or the “etheric” or “vital body,” because through it we receive our vitality, our physical and emotional energy.  It is the body of Younger Self, and it perceives through the starlight consciousness of the right hemisphere.  Its perceptions are often more accurate than our conscious perceptions—but its ability to express them in words is limited.”  She adds that meeting our physical needs (especially the need for exercise) is the way to sustain raith energy, which can be depleted through psychic work.  The “astral body,” by contrast, refers to “the energy of consciousness, of thoughts, dreams, fantasies, mind ….”  It is the “body of the Talking Self,” and its plane is “the hidden reality behind appearances, the dream realm…” (163).

At this point I’m struggling.  First of all, the right hemisphere is not “unconscious;” but Starhawk notes in later editions that she no longer subscribes to the left-right brain framework used in the first edition.  Next, I would have said that dreams belong to the part of us that has trouble expressing itself through words—not to the “Talking Self.”  In fact, as a trauma therapist, I would tend to map out the self with reference to degrees of awareness and articulation—at one end of the scale, body events (like psychosomatic seizures) and acting out (like compulsive promiscuity); then body sensations and feelings which are not immediately channeled into action; then symbolization, through play, dream, art, and ritual, and finally language.  I can’t assimilate her model, though I do see us both struggling to place body and imagination and language in a relation that we can work with.

And “Deep Self?”  “It is the finest of vibrations, yet the most powerful.  When we invoke the Goddess and god in rituals, we connect with this energy.  That connection is the heart of the greater magic, of mystical ecstasy” (164).  The atheist in me simply can’t get on board here.  Even if, as Starhawk says, this is poetry, not theology—a “conceptual model, not a doctrine”—her language here lacks not only the precision of good science, but also the precision of good poetry.  Compare it to Emily Dickinson and you’ll see what I mean.  Starhawk’s use of terms like “elemental,” “vibration,” and “energy” seem to me imply a scientific basis for concepts that go far afield of what science can support.

Moving on to the trance chapter, I read:

“Ordinary perception is a process of the physical senses.  What we see, hear, feel, smell, or taste is further conditioned by language, the set of cultural symbols that allows us to name what we have perceived …. But perception in the trance state is not bound by the physical senses.  ‘Astral colors’ are not seen with the physical eyes; sounds are ‘heard’ only in our minds.  The currents of subtle energy fit no sensory modes.  Our language does not name them or contain words that adequately describe them.”  (168-9)

Now, I would have said that the experiences she describes are a matter of either vivid imagination, or hallucination (meaning sensory experience triggered by processes in the brain, without external sensory stimulation).  When I practice visualization, or undertake a “shamanic journey,” I’m not operating in a realm outside of the senses; I’m using some combination of procedural and explicit memory to create a vividly imagined scenario.  When my dissociative clients hear voices, their brains are reproducing patterns with which they are familiar from sensory experience.

As for the “currents of subtle energy,” if they had no sensory component at all, you would not be aware of them.

Maybe I’m being a soulless kill joy here, but I don’t think poetic license excuses this kind of talk.  It’s all too easy to take unfamiliar experiences and mystify them, declaring that there is no sense-based (i.e. empirical) way to study or describe them, especially if you’re not familiar with the efforts that have been made to do just that.  AA members will say that no human power could have made them sober (ignoring the possibility that the way the group is structured, via human endeavor, did just that).  Ghost hunters will claim that nothing can explain the electric signals their machines pick up, because they themselves know so little about electromagnetic fields.  Even when we don’t yet have clarity about the physical processes behind an experience, it seems to me more honest and more fruitful to say so, than to imply that something “magical” (in the common, colloquial sense of) is happening.  The world is not about to run out of things to wonder at; we don’t have to inflate mystery to keep things wondrous.

Recent studies of meditation have shown altered brain wave patterns in Buddhist monks and contemplative nuns, both while they are practicing, and in resting states.  I strongly suspect that the state I enter with clients who are doing “inside work” could also be studied, both to map out what is happening in my brain and my body, and to identify factors in the subliminal communication between me and my client that induce this process.  I am already aware, for instance, that using dimmer lights in my office, lowering my voice, pacing my breathing to match my clients—all these changes make trance states more likely to occur.  You might say that what happens in guided trance work is deep body attunement, like that of a good mother with an infant.  It lowers the guard of the client, and allows him to access more vulnerable parts of himself.

Nevertheless, I’m still excited and gratified to see that someone else knows what it’s like.  Starhawk writes that since in trance, the astral body “’feeds’ off of the raith,” trance work “can be devitalizing if it is engaged in too often.  It is common to return feeling extremely cold and ravenously hungry” (170).  Check.  She emphasizes the importance of a “safe, private place” in which to do the work—the reason why therapists must create a safe, quiet, consistent office environment.  She suggests casting a circle before leaving the trance, to “create an energy barrier, assuring safety on the astral as you have assured it in the physical realm” (170)—or, as I would say, you have to help your client find closure at least for that session.  This can be done by means of visualizations (the alters going back to sleep, or retreating to a safe place).  You can also facilitate the transition to the everyday world by shifting the tone to chat, joking, turning on some lights.

Starhawk also notes that trance “can be dangerous … because it opens the gates to the unconscious mind….” (170).  We find there everything we had wanted to disown—or, in my language, dissociate.  In fact, this is the meaning of the DID client’s inside world—the alters are everything that the host cannot believe is hers, whether this is her anger, her competence, or her childlike vulnerability.  For this reason Starhawk recommends the help and support of someone who understands the work—“untrained coveners should not work with each other in this fashion, because it can be as harmful as amateur psychoanalysis” (173-74).  Or as I would put it, you don’t want to do trauma work with someone who is not trained in it.

Moreover, as any good trauma-and-dissociation therapist could tell you, “[n]o one can be forced into a confrontation with the Shadow, nor can the process be hurried.  It must happen in its own good time…. “   Referring to a particular instance of trance work in her coven, she writes, “Had we tried to force the confrontation, it might have been extremely destructive or simply useless.  But when the timing was right, she found herself capable of taking in the qualities that before had seemed so threatening.  The process marked a deep integration in her personality, and a flowering of her personal and creative power ….”  (173).

Reading many of Starhawk’s practices, I have no doubt her work can be profoundly healing, as I hope mine has been.  I would like, even while using what is useful in trance experience, to see it studied and understood more prosaically.  One of my favorite passages in the book comes later, when she says she “would like to see the Goddess religion of the future be firmly grounded in science, in what we can observe in the physical world” (220).  I believe our practices, in the context of therapy and witchcraft, can only be strengthened by understanding the mechanisms that make them effective, and being able to compare notes across theoretical divides.

 

*Formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder

**  It’s important to note that no one personality in a case of DID is more “real” than the others.  The “host” is just a convenient designation for the personality who bears the legal name, and has certain common characteristics (is depressed, has low self esteem, and often knows less about the “inside” world than the alters).  “Alters” are the other personalities.

 

Sources:

Starhawk (1999).  The Spiral Dance:  A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess.  New York:  HarperCollins.

,,,and the source on the prayer/meditation studies is upstairs on my shelf, and I’m TIRED and

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